Just as there’s a fine line between genius and madness, there’s not always much wiggle room between persistence and repeatedly banging your head against a wall. If you’re lucky, though, you end up with fame, fortune, and a platinum-selling, double Grammy-winning, #1 hit song — rather than anonymity and a severe concussion.
In 1966, Kim Carnes started singing with The New Christy Minstrels—a squeaky clean folk-pop choir of sorts—alongside fellow member and future duet partner, Kenny Rogers. When the group disbanded in 1971, she spent a few years penning songs for Partridge Family pin-up David Cassidy, and the rest of the decade struggling to establish a solo career. As an illustration of that struggle, in 1979 she released a single entitled “She Dances With Meat” under the pseudonym Connie Con Carne.
She dances . . . with meat.
Clearly, things were not going well.
In 1981, Carnes hooked up with a new producer and started looking at material for her upcoming album. One of the songs submitted was the demo for “Bette Davis Eyes.” It was not a new song, and its co-writer, Jackie “What The World Needs Now Is Love” DeShannon, had released her own version back in 1975.
Three things distinguish the remake from the original. First of all, the raspy vocal and Dylanesque delivery of Carnes immediately stands out, bringing a toughness and sexiness to the lyric — ingenues should never be allowed to sing this song. Secondly, the sparse production and spacious mix gives the song both immediacy and mystery. Finally, and most importantly, the—at the time—very modern-sounding synthesizer arpeggio and electronic handclaps, both of which would become staples of the 80s sound, provide the massive hooks and mainstream appeal. (Fun fact: the song was recorded live, in one take. The are no overdubs — not unusual for a rock band, but very unusual for an 80s pop song.)
Sometimes lyrics and melody alone, standing naked, are enough to propel a song to the top. But sometimes it needs an outfit — maybe a sparkly, black cocktail dress, or blue denim overalls, or Hammer pants. And sometimes you need to toss that polyester leisure suit and replace it with shoulder pads and stilettos. That’s how you get one of the biggest songs of the 80s . . .
. . . from a forgotten song of the 70s.